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"You Must Remember This"
Teaching with Mnemonics

Do you remember your "Dear Aunt Sally" or that "All Cows Eat Grass"? Those memory tools, or mnemonics, have helped kids recall mathematical operations and musical notes for decades. Today, researchers say that using mnemonics to help students "file" information more effectively makes it possible for them to retrieve the material more easily. Better yet, create and use your own memory tools. Included: Classic mnemonics, and tips to help you create new ones.

When Laraine Reisner's fourth grade students focus on long division, Ronald McDonald is their muse! In her Encino (California) Elementary School classroom, every student writes "DMSCB" as a reminder about the steps they follow to complete division problems -- divide, multiply, subtract, compare, and bring down. The students remember the letters by recalling the question "Does McDonald's Sell CheeseBurgers?"

Reisner adopted the McDonald's theme when she discovered that her students found it easier to recall than her old stand-by, "Daddy, Mommy, Sister, Cousin, and Brother." She would even remind students of missed operations through the family names, such as "You forgot the brother!"

Classic Mnemonics
Some mnemonic tools based on the technique of letter strategy (using acronyms and acrostics) are "oldies but goodies" that teachers recall from their own school days. Here are a few that "every good boy" -- and girl -- should remember!

* ROY G. BIV: the colors in the spectrum of visible light in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet
* Every Good Boy Does Fine: the lines of the treble clef: E, G, B, D, and F
FACE = the spaces of the treble clef: F, A, C, and E
* HOMES: the five Great Lakes: Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior
* Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally: the order of mathematical operations: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction
* My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas: the nine planets in order: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto
* King Philip Came Over For Good Soup (or Spaghetti): the taxonomic categories in biology: kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species
* Never Eat Shredded Wheat: the points of a compass: north, east, south, and west

"I have been teaching division for 23 years, and I don't remember how I acquired this technique, but I do know that I added to it," Reisner told Education World. "Originally, I learned it without the C (Cousin) but added it in after realizing that it was doable, and that so many students were forgetting to compare their remainder with their divisor."

Today, fifth grade teachers recognize students who have come from Reisner's room because they write "DMSCB" at the top of their division papers. Reisner's happy that they find her memory tool helpful. "Whatever works!" she says.

"When I can think of one, I do use mnemonics in teaching," Reisner offered. "I have also shared DMSCB with the third grade teachers, and they are using it as well. I teach the gifted cluster, and often they think of their own memory tools too, which is just great!"

In fact, one essential goal of teaching with such memory tools as "Does McDonald's Sell CheeseBurgers?" is exactly what Reisner has observed -- to enable students to create and use their own tools, or "mnemonics," to improve recall.


For years, teachers have used familiar mnemonics to help students remember historical facts, musical lines, and spaces, but today's educators are not just using tried and true memory tools, they are making their own as well.

In mnemonic instruction, students relate new information to what they have already learned through visual and verbal cues. The approach is often used in special education classes, but it can be applied in any class. Its success lies in enhancement of initial processing of information and leads to better retrieval of that information at a later time.

Dr. Tom Scruggs, a professor in the special education program and director of the Ph.D. in Education program at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, has co-written articles about mnemonics, including Enhancing School Success with Mnemonic Strategies, and a book, Teaching Students Ways to Remember: Strategies for Learning Mnemonically (Series on Cognitive Strategy Instruction) with fellow professor Margo A. Mastropieri. The professors also have studied mnemonics and their implementation in the classroom.

"One effective mnemonic is a verbal elaborative strategy that successfully links known information to unknown information, usually through an acoustic proxy," Scruggs told Education World. "In this basic form, an unknown word sounds like a known word [keyword] and is related in picture or image to the definition. For example, rana, which means frog in Italian, sounds like rain, and the student forms an image of a frog sitting in the rain."


Scruggs says that mnemonics work best when they form a very clear link between known and unknown information, and when they are practiced routinely. Well-constructed mnemonics work so well initially that students sometimes assume that mnemonics never need to be practiced, but that is not true. Well-constructed mnemonics, however, if learned and practiced a few times at intervals, will be retained for a very long time.

"Mnemonics work -- although not necessarily better than other mnemonics -- when they are personal, such as a particular person's name that implies a characteristic known only to those who know that person," Scruggs explained. "Those are harder to use with an entire class, although they provide an additional source of elaborations to individuals."

Although it often is thought that mnemonic images that are silly or ridiculous in some way are more memorable than "ordinary" ones, Scruggs says there is no scientific evidence of that. Some evidence does exist, however, that if one word is very different from the rest of the words in a list, it will be remembered better than the others.

To create an easy mnemonic for students, Scruggs suggests using the keyword strategy. Begin by prioritizing and choosing the most important vocabulary, terms, and concepts students should remember. Choose acoustically similar keywords familiar to all students. As examples, he offers "alliance" and "appliance," "anticline" and "ant climbing," "rhodochrosite" and "road," "William Jennings Bryan" and "lion," and "bodkin" and "body." Picture the keyword with the answer, meaning, or associated information.

Scruggs recommends using clip art to create the image for students. In an actual classroom, he advises that the teacher might introduce a mnemonic in this way, "W.J. Bryan, the Secretary of State at the time of WWI, was a pacifist who opposed war. The keyword for Bryan is lion. Remember this picture of a pacifist lion trying to stop fighting." Next, the teacher asks, "What is the keyword for Bryan? Who was W.J. Bryan? What was the strategy?"


A primary goal of mnemonic instruction is to have students adopt mnemonic strategies and use them independently. To facilitate the transition from teacher-created to student-created mnemonics, Scruggs outlines six steps:

Tips for Creating Mnemonics
As teachers start creating mnemonics, Dr. Tom Scruggs offers these tips.
To remember the tips, think IF UP
* Identify the content (concepts, facts, vocabulary) students have most difficulty remembering -- just a few at first.
* Find someone to brainstorm with you keywords or other elaborations. Be sure keywords familiar to you also will be familiar to your students.
* Use your own art, stick figures, cutouts from magazines, help from an artistic student or colleague, or clip art to create mnemonic pictures.
* Practice each step carefully with the class, being sure they have learned the process. When students reply with the keyword instead of an answer, (i.e. "rana" means "rain") say, "No, rain is the keyword to help us retrieve the answer. What was happening in the picture with the rain?"


  1. Incorporate mnemonic strategies as much as possible in your teaching.
  2. Apply attributions. (i.e. "If you use these strategies, you will remember the information.")
  3. Induce creation of the strategies. (i.e. "Mollusks are characterized by a soft skin. What is a good way to remember that?")
  4. Help students create strategies and use class brainstorming.
    • Identify important information or associations.
    • Create keywords or other relevant verbal elaborations.
    • Relate the keyword to the associated information.
    • Execute the steps to retrieve the information.
  5. Have individual students create strategies.
  6. Monitor and evaluate independent creation of mnemonic strategies.

Although creating mnemonics in groups is beneficial, Scruggs feels there are times when mnemonics of the teacher's design are more appropriate. "Keep in mind that in our research, students were able to create mnemonics successfully and they benefited from doing so, but they still moved through the content considerably more slowly than when teachers created and provided strategies for the class," he explained. "Teachers must consider whether, at a given point in time, recall of important content or learning to use memory strategies has a higher priority."

To read about how two student teachers created a mnemonic to help students learn division, see the Education World Teacher Feature Starring Denise Sockoloskie and Claire Lohr.


Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
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